Revisiting "The Best Fight I Ever Saw"
It was May 18th, 2002 and I was walking into Mohegan Sun with my father for the first boxing match I would ever attend in person. I had no idea of course that being in that particular arena on that particular night would become one of the greatest honors of my life. Nobody in the arena did, nobody watching at home and nobody sitting ringside realized what this fight would become. People were excited for the first fight between Mickey Ward and Arturro Gatti, but we were witnessing history. It started the Trilogy of fights that would define two Hall of Fame fighters careers, but none could live up to the first. I sit here rewatching this classic now with a chill running down my spine because of three words I keep saying over and over in my head...I was there.
Mickey Ward got cut above his right eye early in the first round by a left hook from Gatti as Arturro controlled the first round with his elusiveness and by picking Mickey apart with his jabs, using them just like a blind man uses his cane. The thing is though, when you punch a kid from Lowell in the face, they don't get hurt. Instead they get mad. Ward came out swinging harder in the second round but it was still a round you had to give to Gatti on the scorecards. The third round is when the fight really got interesting. Ward started to get Gatti with his famous trademark left hooks to the body and his "home crowd" in Connecticut gave a standing ovation as he finished the round hammering Gatti into the ropes. 53 power strikes landed between the two of them in the third round alone. And in the fourth round the war continued. Two men just trading blows in the center of the ring for entire round until Gatti knocked Ward down late with a low punch that he was called for.
The slug fest continued in the fifth round, as Gatti landed blow after blow and had to have been getting frustrated as he was giving his punches everything he had and they still barely seemed to phase Ward. This is an Irish kid from Lowell, Massachusetts after all, if there's one thing he knows it's how to take a fucking punch. This is where it started to become Mickey's fight. It wasn't so much a boxing match anymore as it was a brawl. The two fighters refused to give each other an inch and the crowd began to go absolutely wild. By the end of the fifth, there had to have been a feeling in the air that we were seeing something truly special. The sixth round goes to Gatti but ends with Ward pounding his chest, as Larry Merchant remarked, "as if to say I can take anything you can give....and he can"
Round 7 Arturro was in control again, going back to his style of fight and landing combo after combo, but you can't just stop a guy like Mickey Ward. Mickey started the eighth round on the attack as his brother and trainer Dick Eklund in the corner remarked that he wasn't going to allow him to be a punching bag. Even still you probably had to give the eighth round to Gatti, until a heavily bleeding Ward ended the final thirty seconds of the round with a vengeance. But the real fight hadn't even started yet. All of this had just been a warm up session for Round 9. Round 9 is when this fight cemented itself as one of the All Time classics. Round 9 was exactly the kind of shit legends are made of.
Ward came out immediately on the attack in the ninth knocking Gatti down early with a perfectly placed body punch that the announcers didn't think he'd recover from, but this wasn't your average fight. Gatti came back up for more and Ward was more than willing to oblige.
The ninth round almost has to be scored as its own separate fight. The first minute went to Ward in a landslide, the second minute of the round went to Gatti as he came at him with a flurry of combos and just simply could not stop Ward and then the Irish temper took over again and Ward charged with more of his famous body shots before simply pummeling Gatti's face with vicious left hooks. The ringside commentators are going wild with forty five seconds left in the round, the entire crowd of the Mohegan Sun arena is on their feet. Not just cheering on our New England fighter anymore, but cheering for entire sport of boxing, as every last person in that arena had to have known at this time that history was being made right there in front of our eyes.
The official could have stopped the fight completely with thirty seconds left in the round, but I think even he wanted to see what else this fight could give us. The fighters landed a combined 110 punches in the ninth round and ALL of them were power shots.
With two minutes left in the tenth round and final round the announcers remark that they're not sure if Gatti has another two minutes left in the tank, but that they're sure Ward does. If you knew anything about Ward you knew that was true. Mickey had running off nothing but Irish Pride since the seventh and that's more than enough in most fights. Rocky Balboa had the Eye of The Tiger, Mickey Ward had the Pride of The Irish. It's the same fucking thing. A minute left in the tenth and both fighters are still just standing toe to toe trading blows. Neither would quit. Neither would give an inch. A candidate for fight of the year became an immediate candidate for Fight of the decade. Eighteen years later I still don't know if I've seen a better fight.
After the fight, in a twist of fate, I ended up with another one of my All Time favorite memories as we ended up in the elevator with legendary boxing analyst Jim Lampley. My father told him he had just taken me and my brother to our first ever fight, at which point the legendary Jim Lampley asked nine year old me what I had thought of the fight. I looked him dead in the eye and without hesitation said "it was the best fight I ever saw" and by his reaction I'm pretty sure he agreed with me. I fully expect my elevator conversation with Lampley to be in his memoir someday.
I can't finish this article without first thanking my Papa, John "Red" Cavanaugh for making me a fan of the sport when he taught me how to throw my first combo at the age of seven. I also have to thank my father for putting up with a nine year old during a fight like that. It was just one of many legendary sporting events I got to attend with the old man, and I realize as I write this that they're memories I'll cherish for the rest of my life.